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Owl Pellets and Tea – 10/4/19

It’s funny how 60F in October feels so much colder than 40F in April! We enjoyed a fairly warm and wind-free September, but today definitely felt like Fall: crisp air, many colorful leaves on the ground, no yellow jackets (too cold). It was nice to see new faces and reconnect with old friends. Once again, we had a strong Magic the Gathering contingent, a group of kids enjoying the beach, another at the playground, and several groups of parents chatting and drinking tea. It was especially nice how comfortable many children felt moving between different areas. In a time when many neighborhood sidewalks are empty, Houghton’s Pond has become our own neighborhood, that exists on Friday afternoons, where our children can safely run and play, with a great degree of autonomy.

Homeschoolers are very independent people, with diverse schedules that often leave little free time. Families who attend come from as near as Milton and Quincy and as far as Arlington and Bridgewater. I am grateful to everyone who comes for making an effort to be there; for prioritizing free play outdoors, and making it possible for our children to feel like Houghton’s Pond is their domain.

I will see you all next week, rain or shine!

LARP – 5/24/19

It’s hard to believe, but today was warm and dry! This was lucky, because it was the very first time that we had a Live Action Role Playing campaign. I was excited about the idea of LARPing, because so many of the kids who come love imaginative role playing, from animals to D&D, and the game is infinitely scalable, allowing any number of players of different ages, interests, and abilities. Planning a live action campaign is a lot like programming: 10% solving the problem (in this case, developing the plot, characters, and props) and 90% error handling (because nothing ever goes according to plan when dealing with unpredictable numbers of participants and giving them full control over the actions of their characters). When I first floated the idea, I got some interest from the parents, but no one was as excited as I was. Luckily, my oldest child and a friend decided that writing a LARP would be fun, and they went for it.

One of my favorite things about child-directed learning is watching children do what they love, spending countless hours working away at tasks that require concentration, perseverance, skill, and background information. The two writers met for weeks, in person and online, and today they got to see their work in action. According to my child, despite their extensive preemptive error handling, nothing went according to plan: there were far too many player characters, not enough non player characters (NPCs), who make the imaginary world seem more real, it was hard to hold the attention of a group of very excited kids who just wanted to fight with pool noodles long enough to explain the magic rules, some younger players were frustrated with the rules, some participants changed their mind at the last minute and important roles had to be filled at the last second. Despite all this, over 20 children, ranging in age from 5 to 16, successfully recovered an amulet that went missing from Houghton town in about 60 minutes. It was awesome!

The missing and recovered amulet from Houghton town

What made this activity great in my mind is the many ways in which it allowed for participation. It was designed and written entirely by children. The writers were also the referees. Even though the characters were designed beforehand, the writers were able to adjust for younger/less experienced players on the spot, by giving them more health points or ability points, allowing them to participate on a more equal footing with older/physically stronger/more experienced players. Children who wanted to pursue other activities, such as playing Magic, reading, or carrying on elaborate animal rescue games, were still able to participate as NPCs. My favorite scene that I observed was a 14 year old who graciously stepped into the role of a pirate NPC after the younger pirates assigned to that location got bored and decided to join the player party instead. He was reading a book, but when he observed the player party heading in his direction he hid in a bush. He then jumped out of his hiding spot as the party approached the clue he was guarding, actually surprising the party leader. As he happens to be an experienced fencer, he put up a good fight until he was frozen by magic, at which point he fell over dramatically, with his pool noodle sword at his side. The party recovered the clue and he proceeded to read his book.

As organizers of this park day, we strive to find activities that promote “social opportunities” for the children who attend. This is tricky, because everyone socializes differently. Some folks are super happy to play large group games, running around whacking each other with pool noodles for hours. Some are happier with quieter activities that allow for chatting, like drawing or needle arts. Others prefer small group collaboration, such engineering challenges. Still others prefer to play their own game with a friend week after week, regardless of the activity offered. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether a child is on their own because they’re choosing to be on their own, or because they don’t feel confident approaching a group. We hope that the activities we run make it possible for everyone, especially the less extroverted children, to connect with others in ways that feel meaningful to them. I think LARPing was a great success in that it successfully engaged extroverts and introverts; those who wanted to whack with pool noodles and those who wanted to brainstorm, write, and design; kids who have known each other for a long time and those who were new. I am told that work on the next LARP will begin on Monday, with one new writer joining my daughter and her friend. I can’t wait to see what they will come up with, and how they will incorporate the hands-on experiences of what will go wrong into the new project.

I will see you all next week, rain or shine!

Mother’s Day Tea and Tulips with AHEM – 5/10/19

Ten brave families gathered at Houghton’s Pond last Friday, braving cloudy skies and gusty winds of up to 25 mph for friendship, fun, and vitamin D. Nature has been consistent this season, that’s for sure. We had a discussion scheduled for weeks, with a special guest, Sophia from AHEM, to talk about the topics of homeschooling beyond “schooling” or curriculum – for example, managing the needs of multiple children, coping with and preventing burnout, finding community. I was super excited about this program, because it was specifically for the adults. I think our turnout would have been bigger if it wasn’t so overcast and horribly windy after a week of sunny and warm days, but it was probably even better to have a group small enough to allow for everyone’s voice to be heard. We usually have groups of adults chatting at park day, but this was the first time that all the adults in attendance came together as a group to talk about these topics. This felt like such a big deal to me. I was so glad to have Sophia join us, and bring her experience of homeschooling two children (now adults) through college. I looked forward to learning from her experiences and to hear what everyone else in our group thinks and does.

We were planning to discuss from 1 to 230, but started late and chatted until almost 330. We focused most on community building and park days. Sadly, park days have been dying out due to lack of attendance. The working hypothesis during our discussion was that it’s hard to compete with “commercial” educational activities, such as MFA classes. In my blog post from a few weeks ago I mentioned how people in our area place a lot of value on education, sometimes to the exclusion of socialization. Many classes offer some social opportunities, like a common place for families to eat before or after, and of course there’s a lot to be said for meeting friends based on shared interests. Some people feel like they connect best in classroom environments. On the downside, the classes sometimes fall short of creating a community. For example, if someone is enrolled in lots of classes, maybe even really cool classes like creative writing through Dungeons & Dragons, the physics of rocket science, and/or organic gardening and cooking – they are creating an environment of school a la carte. While not the same as attendance of full time school, school a la carte is not exactly the same as other forms of home schooling, either. In school a la carte, the focus is primarily on the child’s education, with little opportunity for the whole family to bond with other families, creating a community.* It is expected that one will outgrow or move on from organized classes. Rarely will there be intermediate or advanced level classes for someone to move on to, once they have exhausted the introductory classes. A co-op or volunteer teacher format where parents take on the responsibility of teaching offers not only a chance for the parents and whole families to get to know each other, but also the opportunity to tailor the instruction to the students’ learning style and exact areas of interest, and to delve as deeply into the subject matter as the student wants and the instructor feels comfortable with exploring. If you can pair a child interested in model rockets with a rocket scientist – what an awesome opportunity for the child to have a mentor, and what a truly awesome opportunity for the adult to share their love of their subject matter with someone! This, of course, predicates of knowing adults who are willing to share their time and knowledge with your children – and this is where community comes in!

Park days, those great, egalitarian incubators of community, where one can go for free (unstructured as well as no cost) play and socialization. Our group has parents with fields of professional expertise as diverse as early childhood development, social work, teaching, performance arts, massage therapy, nursing, science/research, IT, law enforcement, law/policy, photography, advanced academics (two women who hold PhDs in math!), accounting and probably others (my sincere apologies to anyone I didn’t list. I value your knowledge.) In addition, these folks play music, bike and maintain their bikes, cook delicious food that accommodates a variety of dietary needs, garden, keep free range backyard chickens, make herbal medicine, volunteer at animal shelters, ferment foods from hot sauce to kimchi to beer, can, design sophisticated D&D campaigns, sew, knit, crochet, whittle, tie knots, build fires, identify wildlife, speak languages other than English, and so much more. I am honored to connect with you all. I feel like I have so much to learn from everyone, and if someone would like to learn about what I know – I am very glad to teach you. Unlike offering classes to people I don’t know, this knowledge exchange feels more organic. The teachers know their students and don’t have to guess about whether they’re really interested or if they’re signing up because their parents feel it’s important for them to know how to knit or do advanced algebra. It’s also egalitarian, in that everyone’s skills are valued not based on their earning potential but on their subject expertise. Even rocket scientists sometimes need to cook or tie knots — or maybe they’re already gourmet cooks and enjoy sharing their mad cooking skillz just as much as they enjoy talking about physics.

Of course, not everyone feels this way about learning and teaching. Many of us are busy, stressed, pulled in many different directions, and, frankly, wish for nothing more than fifteen minutes of quiet. Committing to leading an hour long workshop feels impossible, and asking for someone to lead one feels like a huge imposition. Paying for a class that’s already offered feels like a better solution, even if it means spending more time and money and giving up a chance to connect with friends. Our society places a lot of importance on individuality and self reliance. From what I see, many homeschoolers are extremely self reliant. It’s hard to talk about things that are not going well for us and share our struggles. Yet, we have so much to learn from each other. We are our greatest resource! I love when someone feels comfortable enough to ask another parent to watch their child for a minute while they run to the bathroom – because it’s not only that they trust enough to leave their child someone, they feel comfortable enough to not be self reliant. Almost always, the parent left in charge of the other child is happy to be able to help. Many people love to give, but to be able to give – someone needs to be on the receiving end, which can feel uncomfortable. I would love to be part of a community where people feel good asking for help, knowing that they are not a burden; that at some point they also will be able to help someone else in some way and the karmic balance will all work out. Let us be vulnerable. Let us support each other. Let us bond and create community.

We didn’t get to talk about managing the needs or multiple children and coping with/preventing burnout, as community building is such an interesting and pressing topic. I really hope that we will continue talking in the future. As we were all engaged in conversation, no one took pictures, so I will have to describe (though in less than 1000 words) that we had hot tea in handmade ceramic mugs and mason jars with handknit cozies, some plant based snacks, upon which the children adorably grazed (imagine a 13 year old munching on a cup full of veggie chips on his way to a Magic game, a small group of ‘tweens bonding over crackers, and a little girl with no top teeth managing a crunchy carrot.) Everyone took home yellow tulips, as a small token of appreciation for all the work they do as parents, always stretched and stretching, yet willing to find time to come to park day and open themselves to the possibilities of community. Thank you!

I will see you all next week, rain or shine!

*Apologies if I came across as judgmental. Everyone decides what works best for their family, and it is absolutely not my place or intention to pass judgement on how anyone chooses to facilitate the education of their child(ren). These are only my thoughts of pros and cons of various forms of at home learning. Everyone’s mileage will vary.

Re-Capture the Flag – 4/26/19

If there’s nothing like adversity to bring people closer together, then the weather is absolutely working for us! Once again, it was 50F and raining, at one point quite hard, and most everyone in attendance had a wonderful time. The parents chatted over tea and candied jalapenos (cowboy candy!) while the youngins ran around re-capturing the flag, skipping stones, and/or being wolves.

It is always interesting to watch the children interact. Some are outgoing and confident, but some are shy and prefer to stick close to their siblings and/or friends they know well. Often, it looks like there are several parallel play dates happening. Seeing everyone happily engaged is, of course, a good thing, and it’s easy to say that we’ve succeeded at creating an atmosphere where everyone can have a good time. But what happens when we have new families join who don’t know anyone, or if someone’s friends aren’t there that day? The more outgoing extroverts may have no problem coming up to a group and joining in, but that is definitely not everyone. I wonder how we can make our community feel as welcoming to children and adults alike.

As adults, we can model welcoming behavior for our children. We can talk with them about making an effort to reach out to those who seem lonely or shy about approaching. Based on this season’s experience so far, it seems that giving the children an opportunity to organize and lead their own group activity, such as Capture the Flag, gives them a greater sense of ownership, which encourages them not only to feel more comfortable playing with others but also makes them more likely to reach out to newcomers and to welcome them into their established group. I am very much looking forward to seeing whether this dynamic will grow as the season goes on.

I will see you next week, rain or shine!

here’s to another great Houghton’s Pond Park Day!

4/19/19 – Capture the Flag

More than ten families came together at Houghton’s Pond today for a spirited game of Capture the Flag. Strong, gusty winds made Capture the Flag extra challenging. I loved watching the group of mostly teens and ‘tweens run around on the beach – they reminded me so much of the big packs of kids roving neighborhoods, in the days before video games and text messaging. After Capture the Flag, some folks went off to play Magic the Gathering indoors and others played in the water. Such hardy New Englanders!

One great thing about park day is meeting new families, discussing how people in other areas think about community, and how that might vary depending on their motivations for homeschooling. One of the families here today is visiting from Virginia Beach, and I got to hear about how community-oriented the homeschoolers are there, where the homeschooling community has over 5000 members! Mind blown! According to this Boston Magazine article, fewer than 350 students (not families) were registered as homeschooling in the city of Boston and Cambridge in 2014. Adding a few more for all the suburbs – that’s still just a tiny fraction of the Virginia Beach community. Size isn’t everything, of course, but one does wonder if park days and free play are more likely to include children of all ages, from tiny to older teen, just because there are more of them available to come on any given park day.

Sadly many Boston area park days have fizzled out over time. Park days provide so many benefits: free play for the children, time outdoors, socialization/support for the parents, opportunities for people new to the area or new to homeschooling to meet like-minded families. With many academic opportunities and sometimes the fear of missing out, is the temptation to attend this educational workshop at MIT or that amazing MFA art class greater than the pull of the great outdoors? When the pool of attendees is comparatively small, it’s harder to maintain critical mass. This is especially true for families with older children/teens: with few peers prioritizing park day, park day might become unengaging. Watching the the intrepid Capture the Flag group – ranging in age from 6 to 17 – run around Houghton’s Pond today, I wished that people would continue to set aside precious time to come together in nature, with no formal educational opportunities but plenty of chances to play group games like Capture the Flag and the community that is created by sharing our homeschooling challenges as well as our homeschooling joys. To me, these types of learning matter just as much as academic enrichment.

I look forward to seeing you all next week, rain or shine!

Capturing the Flag strategizing in progress

4/12/19 – Scavenger Hunt

Over a dozen families braved gusty winds and cloudy skies to come to Houghton’s Pond today. It was wonderful to welcome four new to our group families, with children tiny to teen. Everyone had a wonderful time getting to know each other through a clever scavenger hunt. Participants worked in groups of 2 or 3, identifying group members “who can do 10 push ups,” “whose birthday is in July,” and “who have never been camping.” It turns out that many of us can count to 10 in three languages, recite a poem, and play a string instrument. About half of the adults present like cilantro. At least five people like snakes and at least two people can do 10 push ups. Only one family has never been camping, though this may change in the near future. We are such a smart and athletic group of nature lovers! There was much playing on the playground, in the shelter by the visitor center (Magic the Gathering is quite a thing!), and by the water, with a surprising number of children wading into the pond despite the decidedly brisk weather. I look forward to seeing you again next week, for more fun, friendship, and vitamin D.

Perfect New England Beach Day in April

The First Day of the Spring 2019 Season at Houghton’s Pond!

Hooray for Spring! Yesterday we kicked off yet another glorious season of Houghton’s Pond Park Day. Friendships were made and renewed as children played and adults chatted. We planned on doing a bit of environmental activism in the form of beach clean up. To our surprise, there was not all that much trash – hooray for responsible beach goers! Despite the slight breeze and a high of 46F, many children (and some adults) got their toes sandy and their clothes wet, building elaborate systems of ditches and dragon nests. Looking forward to seeing everyone next week!